The Rape of the Lock

by Alexander Pope

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What is the theme of The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope?  

The primary themes in Alexander Pope's mock epic The Rape of the Lock are the emptiness and frivolity of the upper class, vanity, the silliness and shallowness of men, women, and their relationships, and false worship.

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In his mock epic The Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope focuses on several major themes. The primary theme is the emptiness and frivolity of courtly, upper-class life, which Pope satirizes hilariously. The whole poem centers around a single lock of hair that has been clipped by the Baron from the nape of Belinda's neck. This one act of minor thievery leads to an explosion of emotions from Belinda, mock battles between ladies and gentlemen (aided by the sylphs), and an abundance of trouble. Pope is hinting, of course, that people of this class have nothing better to do or focus on than the silly act of cutting a little piece of hair. He seems to be inviting readers to think about their own concentrations in life and reflect if they, too, have sometimes overblown a very minor issue into a major catastrophe.

Pope also pokes fun at the vanity of the characters. Belinda is so inordinately upset about the loss of her lock of hair because she believes that it negatively affects her appearance, and that can simply not be tolerated, not after the immense time and effort she has put in to making herself beautiful. Her morning routine is almost religious in its elaborate rituals, as though Belinda is worshiping at the altar of beauty. Her goal is to dazzle everyone she meets and to receive their praise and adoration for her extreme beauty. Belinda, then, is so vain that she focuses completely on her external appearance, caring little about who she is as a person and worrying constantly about such matters as staining her dress or losing some jewelry. In his satire of Belinda, Pope nudges his readers to reflect on their own vanity and concerns.

Pope also delves into the theme of men, women, and their relationships. He snickers at the false heroism of men who wage their “heroic” battles at a card table and the miserable interest of a man who pours all his attention into cutting off a lock of a woman's hair. These are hardly the brave knights of old. Women, too, do not escape the cutting edge of Pope's pen. They are portrayed as vain creatures, emotional to an extreme, bent on getting exactly what they want and horrified if they do not. They are silly and shallow with little in their minds except their appearance and their desire to be admired. The relationships between these foolish creatures can be nothing else than foolish. Instead of holding a conversation with Belinda, for instance, the Baron expresses his love by snipping her hair and beginning a battle.

Finally, Pope makes fun of the false worship in which his characters engage. They worship at the altars of beauty and pleasure. Belinda's morning beauty routine is almost a religious ritual, as are the Baron's preparations for stealing the lock as he prays for help to carry out his plan. A whole crowd of spirits assist the humans in their silliness, supposedly warning and protecting them but actually often leading them directly into bad behavior. Indeed, Pope pokes at his audience's consciences a bit through this theme, making them think about what it is that they are worshiping.

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As mentioned by a previous educator, one of the main themes of The Rape of the Lock is vanity, specifically the vanity of upper-class English society during the early eighteenth century. Belinda, the glamorous society lady, is an epitome of this. Each day upon rising, she enters the inner sanctum of her boudoir where she proceeds to get dressed, taking great pains to ensure that she is as beautiful and as ravishing as any woman could possibly be. The enormous effort she expends during this elaborate ritual proves well worth it, as admiring heads turn in her direction as she embarks upon her stately journey up the Thames toward Hampton Court Palace.

Yet Belinda's whole world is rocked when the Baron forcibly removes a lock of her beautiful hair. We have already witnessed just how obsessed Belinda is about her personal appearance, so we can imagine just how infuriated she is by this flagrant attack upon her beauty. Belinda moves in a world that is incorrigibly vacuous and shallow, where personal appearance is everything. Her reaction to the Baron's theft of a relatively small piece of her hair may seem a trifle excessive, but her implacable wrath is a satirical reflection on just how vain Belinda and the society she inhabits really is.

The theme of vanity spills over into how the rarefied social elite treats religion. The upper classes of early eighteenth-century England clearly pay nothing more than lip-service to prevailing religious beliefs. Faith, like everything else, is something to be shown off, paraded in front of others as a means of securing their approval and admiration. The juxtaposition of faith and vanity is epitomized by Belinda. She keeps a copy of the Bible on her dressing table, which squats uncomfortably next to all her various accoutrements of vanity: hairbrushes, powders, and—appropriately enough—vanity cream.

The Baron also has nothing more than a superficial attachment to religious faith. He wakes up at the crack of dawn to pray for the success of his forthcoming plan to steal a lock of Belinda's hair. But it is all just a sham; he is no more religious than Belinda. His prayers are simply a rather cynical attempt to put a pious gloss upon an act of common thievery. Once again, the motivation for action is vanity; the Baron wants to steal some of Belinda's hair so he can boast of its possession, making him an object of admiration among the smart set.

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One of the main themes of The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope is the exposition of human vanity, especially the vanity exhibited by the upper classes of society. He develops this theme by using the form of the mock epic, a specific form of satire that uses the structure and conventions of epic poetry to narrate trivial events and, in the process, make fun of them. In the poem, Pope narrates the story of a beautiful upper class woman (Belinda) who has a lock of hair tragically stolen by Lord Petre. Throughout the poem, Pope illustrates the vanity of upper class society by staging its primary rituals, including a game of cards and a coffee break, as if they were worthy of epic literature. The poem's climax occurs when Lord Petre scandalously steals a lock of Belinda's hair and chaos breaks loose. All in all, while he's never overly nasty in his satirical treatment of events, Pope is also clearly trying to point out the absurd pettiness and vanity of upper class society by satirically relating it to epic literature.

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